The Raven Review
The Raven was the fifth film in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe cycle, and following on from ‘The Black Cat’ instalment of the previous entry Tales of Terror, owes more to comedy than horror. Indeed, the film can be seen as a parody of the Poe films up until this point, and whilst not quite up to the standards of The Fall of the House of Usher or The Pit and the Pendulum (or indeed later entries The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia), this change of pace proves to be successful.
Of course, Roger Corman wasn’t new to comedy with the arrival of The Raven; among his filmography which had encompassed westerns, teen movies and science fiction, nestle such darkly comic gems as A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors. Indeed, if you’ve directed a film entitled The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, then surely you must have a sense of humour?
As with many Poe movies, the adaptation here is a fairly free one. Opening with a voice-over from Vincent Price that reads out the first three stanzas of the author’s poem, The Raven then proceeds to use these as its basis, ignoring the remaining fifteen. As a result, this allows for the appearance of the eponymous bird and a mention of Price’s dead wife Lenore, but the bleak tone (and bleaker ending) of the original is ignored. Indeed, rather than a messenger of death, the raven turns out to be Peter Lorre, and his vocabulary extends beyond a simple “nevermore”.
Plotwise, The Raven is simple affair. Upon Lorre’s arrival, Price transforms him back to human form and proceeds to Boris Karloff’s castle where his dead wife (Hazel Court), or perhaps her spirit, has been seen. Little development occurs once the main details are in place, rather the film is forwarded by a number of plot twists. Thankfully, Corman keeps the running time to brisk hour and twenty minutes, so longeurs are never given the opportunity to set in.
More important, however, is the film’s reliance on the humorous aspects. Written by Richard Matheson (who had scripted the previous Price-starring Poe films; The Premature Burial having Ray Milland as its leading man), there’s a wonderful droll humour undercutting the dialogue, allowing the overly familiar events to seem fresh. Backing up the script is Les Baxter’s sprightly score; it would appear that Corman wasn’t overly sure that his audience would be aware that he was aiming primarily for comedy, and so uses Baxter’s arrangements as much as possible. And yet, it never seems as though the director is talking down to the viewer (i.e. using it in much the same way as a canned laughter track on a poor sitcom), rather it serves to heighten proceedings even more.
The Raven’s real strength, however, lies in the fine casting. All three of the leads had started out in dramatic roles before moving into the horror arena (it is often forgotten that Vincent Price appeared in the likes of Laura and Leave Her to Heaven, as well as working with such directors as Fritz Lang, Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph L. Mankiewicz) and each approaches their roles with a certain seriousness, despite the tone of the film. Indeed this prevents the film from descending into farce, and Boris Karloff in particular proves as watchable as he was in Scarface or Bride of Frankenstein. It is also worth noting that all three leads had previous experience in the comedy-horror genre, again allowing them to capture just the right mood: both Karloff and Peter Lorre had appeared in two under-rated gems of the genre, The Boogie Man Will Get You and You’ll Find Out; and Price had worked with William Castle on House on Haunted Hill as well as appearing in the deranged classic, The Confessions of an Opium Eater (I’m not 100% certain that this one was intended as a comedy, but personally I find it hilarious).
If there is an obvious flaw, then it resides with Jack Nicholson. Having worked with Corman previously on Cry Baby Killer (his film debut) and The Little Shop of Horrors, Nicholson’s performance here is truly terrible. And yet, juxtaposed with the straight playing of Lorre, Karloff and Price, his awkwardness in the role of Lorre’s son seems to work just right. If Dick Miller, the director’s regular for nerdish characters, had played the part, I’m not sure that the film would have struck the right balance. Either way, Nicholson’s performance is miles away from his later work in Five Easy Pieces or Chinatown, though there is a certain fascination in seeing a youthful incarnation in the kind of film that simply doesn’t get made anymore. Or at least not to this degree of entertainment.
Picture and Sound
Unfortunately, MGM have offered a fairly poor presentation. Whilst the original 2.35:1 ratio is offered with anamorphic enhancement, the print used is especially poor. The colours often looked drained (though admittedly the film is forty years old), and scratches are more often present than not.
The sound fairs slightly better, offering the original mono mix spread over the two front speakers. Whilst the mix is clear, a 5.1 option would have been welcome to show off Les Baxter’s fine score.
Rather than the R1 disc which featured two brief documentaries (one on the film, the other about Richard Matheson) and the original promotional LP, the R2 disc simply offers the original theatrical trailer. In a number of cases, the missing extras don’t always appear to be that worthwhile, though these pieces look fascinating, and it is disappointing to report the loss.
A treat of a film, sadly presented on a lacklustre disc. Whilst the disc is given a budget release, fans should wait until the price drops a little more before they can feel satisfied that they’ve gotten their money’s worth.